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Robertson straddles political, religious roles

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 1988

New Orleans

AS the Republicans open their convention, a restless rumbling can be heard on the right. But not from the candidate that most set liberal and moderate teeth on edge this election, not from Pat Robertson.

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The genial builder of a charismatic Christian empire clearly wants to build a profile as a mainstream figure in the GOP establishment. While other conservatives - and some in the Robertson ranks - threaten to fall out over signs of moderation in the Bush camp, Mr. Robertson is having none of it.

A political rookie, he has supercharged a disciplined national network of activists that vaulted him to some stunning early showings. But he is still toiling after broader political acceptability.

His visibility will be high here this week. He has a prime-time speaking slot Tuesday night. His campaign claims to have garnered thousands of spectator passes to the convention stands for Robertson supporters, who have been encouraged to journey here for the convention.

Although Robertson brought thousands of gung-ho activists into the Republican ranks around the nation, he brings to the convention only a small band of committed national delegates - about 120 of 2,277 total.

His clout on the right wing of the Republican Party does not compare with that of his counterpart on the left wing of the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson.

Mr. Jackson succeeded in moving beyond his base of black voters to become the dominant voice of party progressives. Robertson, by most accounts, never succeeded in broadening his support beyond charismatic Christians.

Conservative Republicans still divide themselves into two distinct camps - the New Right, concerned chiefly with the worldly issues of economy and foreign policy, and the Christian Right, for which social issues top the agenda.

Even within the Christian Right, Robertson is not widely acknowledged as a spokesman outside charismatic circles - estimated at about a third of conservative Christians.

``Many evangelicals and fundamentalists were embarrassed by his campaign,'' says Paul Weyrich, a New Right lobbyist and organizer.

Robertson came close to breaking into a larger sphere of influence last February. After winning preliminary rounds of the delegate-selection process in several states, he triumphed in the Iowa caucuses. Southern fundamentalists - though not inclined to vote for preachers, much less a charismatic who spoke in tongues and practiced faith healing - were beginning to take him more seriously.

With the South Carolina primary approaching, and Super Tuesday tight on its heels, Robertson was approaching 20 percent in some Southern polls. Then he made some controversial comments, including accusing the Bush campaign of exposing the Jimmy Swaggart scandal in order to damage Robertson.

The comments fed the perception among voters outside his loyal flock that he was a religious leader unsteady in worldly affairs.

His poll ratings dropped back to about 5 percent almost overnight, says Mr. Weyrich. His campaign fared poorly in South Carolina and never recovered.

Now Robertson is back at the financially troubled Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), appearing and praying on its flagship show, the ``700 Club.''